Stephen Sondheim once said that musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Taking its cue from the maestro of musicals, Perfect Pitch aims to help promising homegrown musical theatre writers develop their work and discover any necessary rewrites to their shows through a support network of opportunities and workshops before, hopefully, launching into full commercial production.
“The book is probably the hardest element for new writers to get right first time,” says Perfect Pitch producer Andy Barnes who has spent the past 12 months carefully scrutinising more than 100 submitted new musicals before choosing six for this year’s Perfect Pitch Showcase at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 2 (co-sponsored for the second year running by Whatsonstage.com). “You might discover a potentially great musical with superb songs, but then find that the story doesn’t work. And there’s often a perception that a musical has to be ‘about’ something, without thinking through whether or not the idea will actually work musically.”
As Barnes explains, even experienced composers can find it tricky achieving the right balance between songs, musical style, narrative and characters. For the newcomer, often working in isolation, it can be even trickier. That’s where the Perfect Pitch development network of regional theatres, training schools and other organisations and individuals keen to encourage new work comes in.
“Pooling resources helps give novice writers an opportunity to discuss what they are trying to achieve and then focus their ideas, well before the show is even showcased in front of an audience.” Unlike America where there is an established nurturing network, Barnes adds, the UK misses out on that level of continuity. “Developing shows can be a bit ad hoc here. I suppose what Perfect Pitch has sought to do is simply to be a bit less ad hoc.”
Two Perfect Pitch Showcase musicals have already graduated into production. Departure Lounge by Dougal Irvine, about four British lads delayed in a Spanish airport, won Best Music in a New Musical award in this year’s Musical Theatre Matters: UK Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe. And the fairytale musical comedy Betwixt by Ian McFarlane (originally entitled Enchanted) received its professional world premiere at the King’s Head Theatre this summer, while an all-star charity concert version was staged at the West End’s Ambassadors Theatre last month.
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All of this buzz – encouraged by a Arts Council England funding to expand the development side – makes this year’s Showcase a magnet for anyone interested in discovering what’s new in musicals and meeting the newcomers who beaver away at writing – and rewriting – them. The six selected shows, some of which have already had one or more workshop, are: Can You Keep a Secret? by Matthew Brind and Lesley Ross; The Diary of Me by Simon James Green and Stuart Matthew Price; Lift by Craig Adams and Ian Watson; The Lost Christmas by Laurence Mark Wythe; Rebels and Retail by Cush Jumbo and James McConville; and Through the Door by Laurence Mark Wythe and Judy Freed.
“There’s a blend of skilled and experienced writers up against some slightly more raw talent,” says Barnes, though he warns against expecting to see “finished” shows. “Rather than trying to mount half-costumed, semi-staged mini-productions, the songs and dialogue will be performed in 45-minute edited versions of the full piece, which means that a potential producer can put their own interpretation onto the material.”
Audience feedback, he concludes, is as vital to the Perfect Pitch protégés as theatre industry opinion. “It’s a two-way thing. People don’t like filling in forms after watching a showcase, but they are more than happy to stand around in the bar afterwards and talk about what they’ve seen. So we’ve tried to create opportunities where feedback can be given informally, before the writers take on board what they’ve heard and go home to do the rewrites.”
The Perfect Pitch Showcase takes place at Trafalgar Studios 2 (0871 297 5461) from 25 to 29 November with performances at 3.30pm and 7.45pm. On the evening of 25 November, Whatsonstage.com will be hosting a post-show panel discussion - with director Jeremy Sams, executive producer of Old Vic Productions Joseph Smith and Notes from New York co-founder and musical theatre actor Paul Spicer, chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock – on the future of British musical theatre. For more information on this year’s selected musicals and Perfect Pitch’s other activities, visit www.perfectpitchmusicals.com.